MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
When you’re living far from home, you sometimes crave a taste you think you can only get at home. NPR international correspondent John Ruwitch decided to look for his craving in southern China this summer.
JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Let me start by saying this – I love Chinese food – dumplings, hot pot, jia chang cai. I’ve spent years living in China, and when I’m in the country, it’s mostly what I eat. But I grew up in St. Louis, Mo., and in summer, we eat barbecued ribs, slathered with a sticky, sweet sauce. Sometimes I crave it. So one day, a few weeks ago, in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, we went looking for it. When we asked around, we were pointed in the direction of a restaurant called Half Ton and its unlikely master of American barbecue.
NEPOP ALESSANDR SERGEEVICH: My name is Alessandr – Nepop Alessandr Sergeevich. I am from Ukraine – Kyiv.
RUWITCH: Nepop studied the culinary arts in college in Ukraine. He honed his skills in restaurant kitchens across Europe and in New York. But he discovered barbecue in Houston, Texas.
SERGEEVICH: I love this so much, and I found one guy who make barbecue in just his – near his home and he sells this. I just go there and work for one month for free – just study.
RUWITCH: During that month in Texas, he was up before dawn, trimming and rubbing meat, stoking fires, soaking up knowledge. Fast-forward a few years. Nepop was living in China, where he helped open a Russian restaurant. But he was thinking about barbecue.
SERGEEVICH: I think why – why nobody do here barbecue. And Chinese people like meat. So why? Why nobody?
RUWITCH: By here, he means Shenzhen, a city of some 17 million people across the border from Hong Kong. That’s where he lives. There are a handful of American barbecue joints around China, but Nepop didn’t know of any in Shenzhen. So he and some partners got to work.
SERGEEVICH: I make project for this barbecue. We build this by ourselves.
RUWITCH: For the barbecue pit, Nepop drew the design himself and hired a blacksmith to make it out of a giant segment of pipe. It’s almost three feet in diameter and 15 feet long.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIT DOOR OPENING)
RUWITCH: Nepop also found ways to source American beef and pork, which he says is tastier than Australian or local meat. But he ran into a challenge getting traditional woods for smoking, like apple, hickory or mesquite.
SERGEEVICH: Here is – it’s very difficult to find this wood, but a lot …….